James Matthews: a revolutionary poet @ 90

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freedom owns the poet’s soul
he shall not be garbed
in a cloak of ideology
his voice not laced by

James Matthews, Poisoned wells and other delights (1990)

Today, we gather to celebrate the 90th birthday of a remarkable person.* It is our privilege to honour one of Cape Town’s most independent creative spirits, an abiding dissident. From the vantage point of South African literature, we recognise one of the more persistent voices for social and political liberation and freedom of expression in the second half of the 20th century. It is our honour to share in this celebration.

Since James’s birth on 24 May 1929 in Bo-Kaap, much has changed – in the country, in the city and, naturally, in his personal life. His life spans some of the more significant periods of our lives. Imagine, when he was born, the newly created Union of South Africa was less than twenty years old. He was on the cusp of adulthood when the Nationalists came to power in 1948. People lived in shacks or tenement housing in District Six, and elsewhere, without indoor plumbing or electricity. The Cape Town power station was built only in 1936. When he was born, the city’s name was still spelt as one word; the current spelling only came about in the 1930s. He was ten when, as he recalls in his short story, Tribute to a humble man, he witnessed the funeral of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman in February 1940, with 30 000 people or more lining the streets of Cape Town.

There were cars called Oldsmobiles, Packards and Crossleys, but they could not drive around the Foreshore area, because all of it was underwater. In any case, the ordinary folk of the city went about their business by foot, by bicycle or by horse-drawn carriage, creating the ambience of people selling and buying, people making their living. James was almost 40 when the National Party declared District Six white, ripping open its colourful but maddeningly impoverished heart.

When James was born, there were only two high schools for those termed “non-Europeans”: Trafalgar High in District Six, and Livingstone High, established only three years earlier. The possibility of university study was virtually unthinkable. In 1929, the council of the University of Cape Town adopted a resolution, saying that “it would not be in the interest of the university to admit native or coloured students in any numbers, if at all”. James left school midway through standard eight, not an uncommon occurrence at a time when standard six was considered boerematriek.

At the age of 17, just after the Second World War, he published his first story in The Sun, a newspaper edited by George Golding. Stories and contributions followed in Golden City Post, The Cape Times Magazine and The Cape Argus. Under the pseudonym S Matt, he published Westerns in the journal Hi-Note, as well as in Drum. By the 1960s, he had published several short stories in anthologies, among them Quartet and his debut collection, Azikwelwa. I remember James telling me once that on receiving the expected overseas package, he had sat down on the pavement outside the post office, and opened his copy of Azikwelwa, smelling every page of it, almost devouring the printed words. Publishing is difficult at the best of times; local publishing for a black writer was extremely difficult, and often, overseas-based mission-directed publishers stepped into the breach.

In his early writing, we witness the reverberations of the then new policy of institutionalised racism. Matthews explores the impact of centuries of material deprivation, limited opportunity and, quite simply, unchecked exploitation, but he also underscores the innate humanity of people. Few of us will forget the story of the young boy who ventures into a white playground at night to ride the swings, only to be chased off by an attendant who ironically shares his social background.

Matthews’s autobiographical novel, The party is over (1997), initially published in German as Die Träume des David Pattersons (1986), tells us a lot about the social strictures that defined James’s world in mid-century. The immanently recognisable main character is most obnoxious at social occasions, raging against pretence, pomposity and hedonistic upper-class gatherings across the colour bar. Here, we have a striking portrayal of an aspirant writer in an alienated space, searching to become himself.

I would be amiss if I did not, on this occasion, remind us of those pioneering writers and artists whose lives intersected with that of James, and who, severally and collectively, enriched our lives; in Cape Town: Lionel Davis, Alex La Guma, Bessie Head, Richard Rive, Gladys Thomas, Alf Wannenburgh and Peter Clarke; elsewhere: Mafika Gwala, Keorapetse “Willie” Kgositsile, Don Mattera, Essop Patel and Mongane Wally Serote.

Illustrative of their cooperation in Cape Town is a charming experiment carried out in Drum in 1954, when Clarke, Matthews and Rive each published a story set in Cape Town with a main character named Willy-boy, the three stories being published alongside one another on the same page. By the way, Alex La Guma later published A walk in the night (1962), with a similarly named character, Willy-boy. These artists came up through or experienced the slums of Cape Town, and often found themselves on the city’s social margins. Through their work, they became activists, independent artists, men and women of integrity, compassion and creativity.

Twenty years ago, I wrote in More than brothers (2000) that James and Peter formed a firm friendship in the relatively small artistic world that was Cape Town in the 1950s. I wrote that they were polar opposites: “Clarke was characterised by his dignified reserve and meticulous order, Matthews by his forthrightness and bohemian disorder.” James would admit to being, at times, a dreaded party guest, while Peter’s self-control “could never have been more complete”. Clarke, through his painting and writing, and Matthews, through his prose and poetry, became the beacons of what it meant to be black artists in apartheid South Africa. By honouring James, we also honour these stalwarts, and especially remember Peter, who would have turned 90 in nine days’ time.

When James left school, he went on to hold down all sorts of odd jobs: as a messenger running errands, as a chief editorial clerk and night telephonist at The Cape Times, and as a reporter at Golden City Post. Later, he was responsible for turning the rather apolitical paper Muslim News into a powerful anti-apartheid vehicle, even turning dyed-in-the-wool atheists into regular readers.

Many of us got our sense of the role and place of the artist in society from our association with James Matthews. His sense of self-reliance led to the establishment of the first black-owned gallery in Athlone, as well as BLAC (Black Literature, Arts and Culture), his publishing house, later reactivated as Realities, the publisher of literature in English and a number of other South African languages. He is an autodidact, and here was a writer and publisher who rose above his social and economic circumstances – a man with a clear vision, often in spite of himself.

Here was a poet whose natural creative talent burst forth and spoke to us with clarity about our social and political circumstances – and even the apartheid state agreed. They refused him a passport. They detained him without charge, and they banned his poetry. We must mark the importance of collections like Cry rage (1972); Black voices shout! (1974); Pass me a meatball, Jones (1977); and No time for dreams (1981) to protest and revolutionary writing in our national literary development. We would not be alone: Matthews was recognised for his writing in Europe, in the USA and in South Africa, among his awards several honorary doctorates and the country’s highest civil order, the Order of Ikhamanga. These are well-deserved accolades.

Indeed, it is hard to think of South African political poetry without the name of James Matthews. For me, he occupies the same space as a revolutionary poet, as Latin American poets such as Nicolás Guillén of Cuba, or Ernesto Cardenal of Nicaragua. James turned to poetry when writing political short stories became, in his words, “a daunting challenge”. This turn in his creative output coincided with a shift in our social and political environment. It became harsher than ever before.

In his early poetry, we hear the militancy and a sense of foresight and solidarity with the oppressed across the country, and indeed across the African diaspora:

i share the pain of my black brother
and a mother in a harlem ghetto
with that of a soul brother in notting hill
as i am removed from the land that I own
because of the colour of my skin

our pain has linked us
from manenberg to soweto
to the land of the not so free
and britannia across the sea …

our pain unites us
into burning brands of rage
that will melt our fetters
and sear the flesh of the mockers
of our blackness and our heritage

Matthews was firmly identified with local expressions of Black Consciousness in the early 1970s, and his poetry shaped our generation’s understanding of the injustices, brutality and inhumanity that apartheid visited upon our communities across the country. His courageous words gave us strength. Indeed, he gave us a voice, and with him we said: “freedom’s cry will/ not be stilled”. In Pass me a meatball, Jones, he records his incarceration in Victor Verster Prison, with its alienating greyness, the soul-destroying loneliness, the torment of hearing birds in “mocking serenade” and, disconcertingly, the experience of naked fear:

fear a snake
wrapped around my throat
makes my eyes cockroach
at the blockage of breath

In his 2005 anthology of collected poems, Cry rage – odyssey of a dissident poet, we trace the evolution of the poet as individual, as lover, as dissident. We come to understand that his identity formation was never parochial, and that there was always a sense of outreach towards a greater humanity, whether it was in Dimbaza, Palestine or Chile, or in the death of a young American student in Nyanga, Cape Town. He struggled and continues to struggle against all fetters that dehumanise people: “he will not be garbed/ in a cloak of ideology”. Now, Matthews, the chronicler of our times, cannot avoid registering displeasure at what his present experience has become, the sense of marginalisation that he and people like himself experience in the post-1994 South Africa:

i scorn the arrows of marginalization showered upon
my being
of the blacker-than-thou
arrogance displayed by the
proudly, I accept my beginning born of
mixed parentage
i am a reflection of the colours of the
rainbow nation

It is time to conclude: James, thank you for being one of the shiniest beacons in our literary firmament, for giving us a voice and for showing us the depths of compassion, solidarity and humaneness, and an unremitting independence of spirit. Yesterday, you turned 90, well beyond any expectations that you may have had, I am sure. In your collection, Age is a beautiful phase, you express a sense of utter contentment, and that gives us comfort:

age is a beautiful phase
i am at peace with my journey
moving with contentment to its
where I will be at ease and
reflect upon the treasure gathered
sharing with those that have

age is not an omen of fear …

it is the realization that
winter’s sun has a vestige of
warmth that will pleasure my

Hein Willemse

[email protected]

* A slightly revised version of a speech delivered at the celebration of James Matthews’s 90th birthday, held at the Artscape Theatre Complex, Foreshore, Cape Town, on Saturday 25 May 2019

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